“Great last week, man,” Sony Pictures Classics co-president Michael Barker exclaims when he hops on the phone to discuss the Golden Globe nominations for his company’s films, “Amour” and “Rust and Bone.” “Between Marion Cotillard getting nominations for SAG and Golden Globes and Emmanuelle Riva winning all those prizes from critics groups, and then ‘Amour’ winning Best Picture with LA film critics, ‘Gatekeepers’ and ‘Searching for Sugar Man’ chugging along, we’re feeling pretty good.”
Well, no need to report the facts. There they are. And it’s good to be positive, because while these accolades have been great, the fact is Michael Haneke’s “Amour” has had a bumpy day and a half. Particularly for star Emmanuelle Riva, who, while lauded by critics groups this season, failed to grab a notice from either the Screen Actors Guild or Hollywood Foreign Press Association (though she was remembered, among five other co-nominees, by the Broadcast Film Critics Association on Tuesday). Barker’s not too glum about that, though. In fact, he says it was to be expected.
“The history of SAG and the history of the Golden Globes, you can study it,” he begins. “Actors and actresses who get nominations from foreign language films always have a Hollywood presence. Sophia Loren, Marcello Mastroianni, Gérard Depardieu, Marion Cotillard, that’s gonna happen. But in Emmanuelle Riva, it’ll never happen.”
He’s referring, of course, to the fact that Riva hasn’t been able to do the normal glad-handing that is (unfortunately) necessary to build momentum in an awards season. Tucked away in Paris and simply limited on the amount of interviews she can do on these shores — the few she has done, like ours earlier this week, are “invaluable,” Barker says — Riva might be the most interesting underdog of the season. Barker equates her in part to Fernanda Montenegro in “Central Station,” who didn’t have a major precursor presence (she did receive a Globe nominations, however), but ended up in the Academy’s lead actress quintet.
“Actors really adore her in that film,” he says of Riva. “I really believe they both have a better-than-good shot to get in there.”
That “both” includes Riva’s co-star, Jean-Louis Trintignant, who has struggled to get traction in part because of similar issues in making face time with voting bodies, but also due to a typically loaded Best Actor category full of great work. “I can’t tell you how many people I’ve run into that so love to see him as an older man and talk about, ‘Oh, he’s the guy from ‘Z’ and ‘The Conformist’ or ‘My Night at Maud’s,”” Barker says. “So I am not counting him out yet. But there are so many good lead actors this year. So many.”
This uphill battle was always something Barker saw coming. As soon as Haneke’s film won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, the sense was that it was such a clearly unanimous decision that the film might have a shot outside of the ghetto of the Best Foreign Language Film category at the Oscars. So Barker, always the Academy historian, had someone in his New York offices do research on the success of foreign films in major categories.
“I want you to guess how many foreign language films have been nominated for Best Screenplay in the history of the Academy,” he asks. I’m not ready for the question, though of course I’m aware of plenty of instances. I offer a way-off-the-mark guess that I dare not share here. “71,” he replies instantly, with an exclamation point. And he should know. Just last year Sony Classics pulled off an original screenplay nomination for “A Separation” that many didn’t expect.
“Guess Best Director,” he continues. With the new stat in mind, and an understandable one (the writing branch always seems more accepting of foreign films and has 10 nominees between adapted and original to allow for it), I say no more than 20. “26,” is his reply.
And that’s a typical Michael Barker tête-à-tête. He studies and is intrigued by the Academy’s history, particularly when he has an underdog to pitch to their ranks.
“We have a screening program on ‘Rust and Bone’ and ‘Amour,'” he says. “We’ve probably screened them more than any other film that was opening this time of year. [After Cannes] we knew we had to screen them like crazy to guilds and of course the Academy.”
And so he remains ever hopeful that precursor bumps in the road like the SAG and Golden Globe misses for Riva and a lingering sense of doubt that the film can pull off a Best Picture and/or Best Director nomination are just that: bumps in the road.
But there’s always a silver lining. And Barker’s playbook has an endless supply of them. That’s what it takes to climb up a hill in Oscar season. He thinks back to Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” as the last foreign film that really got this kind dogged blitz from the company and panned out (it landed nominations for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay). “And ‘Talk to her,'” he says. “We went after Best Picture there because Spain didn’t submit it in Best Foreign Language Film. It was a similar situation to ‘Rust and Bone,’ so we pursued it like crazy.” That one didn’t pan out for Best Picture, though filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar was nominated for Best Director and, in a bit of a surprise, won the Best Original Screenplay Oscar.
But it’s Barker’s job, naturally, to refine the talking points and get the message out there. With things like the LA critics’ Best Picture win in his pocket, he and “Amour” certainly have a great shot. Nevertheless, he throws out one more talking point.
“In 1973, ‘Cries & Whispers’ was nominated for Best Picture and Best Director,” he says. “It wasn’t a foreign language film entry, but when I was looking at that, I was thinking to myself, ‘Michael Haneke has had one hell of a career. He has hit this moment where he has made this movie that humanizes him to a lot of people, that’s so perfectly crafted.’ There are many of us that think this is his moment, just like ‘Cries & Whispers’ was Ingmar Bergman’s moment. So I look at that and say, ‘If they pulled that off, why shouldn’t Michael Haneke be considered as well?’
“Amour” opens in limited release on December 19.